Experts no longer expect seasonal coronavirus waves: The pandemic is like 'a forest fire looking for human wood to burn'
San Francisco Coronavirus Delores Park
People gather in painted circles on the grass to promote social distancing in Dolores Park in San Francisco, California.
JOSH EDELSON / AFP via Getty Images
In April, a group of experts suggested that a second, more severe wave of coronavirus infections in the fall is the most likely of three future scenarios.
But now one of these experts is saying, "There are no waves." Instead, he characterized the pandemic as a "forest fire" that just continues to burn.
The corona virus is not seasonal like the flu - at least not yet. WHO expects the pandemic to be "a big wave".
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In the spring, US experts tried to predict what the future of the pandemic could look like. Many predicted that the coronavirus, like seasonal flu, would withdraw in the summer before roaring back in a second, heavier wave in the fall.
But epidemiologists are now avoiding this idea.
"There is no evidence that cases will decrease, a low point," epidemiologist Michael Osterholm told Business Insider. "It will just stay hot, like a forest fire looking for human wood to burn."
Osterholm helped write an April report outlining what a second wave could look like in the fall. At that time, he considered it the most likely of three possible scenarios.
"But now we see that there are no waves," he said.
Instead, the pandemic is likely to be "a big wave," according to World Health Organization spokeswoman Margaret Harris.
"Peaks and valleys in different places at different times"
Osterholm works as director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy (CIDRAP) in Minnesota. The second wave scenario described by the group in April was based in part on the course of Spanish influenza in 1918 and the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009.
possible pandemic wave scenario 2x1
A graphic that shows the three scenarios of the CIDRAP group for future coronavirus waves.
Ruobing Su / Business Insider
Another scenario in the report suggested that the first wave of COVID-19 infections in summer and beyond could be followed by a cycle of slightly lower peaks and valleys. The third scenario included a "slow burn" in the current transmission and new cases after the spring infection peak.
However, the reality does not match any of these scenarios.
"In April, we were still checking to see if this was a pandemic where we would see real waves - where the cases are increasing sharply and then bottoming out and then a second, larger wave for reasons that are completely beyond human behavior - what has happened historically with other influenza pandemics, "said Osterholm.
Instead, he added, the pandemic is more like "a long-term fire" - so we are in the middle of a "rapid fire scenario with peaks and valleys in different locations at different times".
This virus is not yet seasonal
Residents are waiting to be tested at a makeshift rapid test center as Vietnam sees a surge in cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Hanoi on July 31, 2020.
Residents are waiting to be tested in Hanoi, Vietnam on July 31, 2020.
Respiratory viruses such as the flu are seasonal, as cooler temperatures help harden a protective gel-like coating that surrounds the virus. A stronger shell ensures that it can survive long enough to move from one person to another, while this shell dries out faster in warmer temperatures.
Like the flu, the new coronavirus spreads through droplets that people make when they cough, sneeze, or talk, and both viruses can be transmitted even when infected people are not showing symptoms.
These similarities made past flu pandemics a worthy model for early comparisons, especially the Spanish flu of 1918, which infected 500 million people. But the coronavirus isn't seasonal like its viral brethren.
"People are still thinking about the seasons. What we all need to find our way around is that it is a new virus," Harris said last week.
"Although it is a respiratory virus and in the past, respiratory viruses have tended to produce different seasonal waves, it behaves differently," she added.
Two masked beach goers sit in the sun.
There's a reason coronavirus isn't affected by the seasons, according to Rachel Baker, a researcher at Princeton Environmental Institute: "We're at the start of a pandemic when a new virus appears in a population that has never had it before. A lack of immunity among the population is therefore becoming a major driver of the spread, and the climate doesn't play a big role at first, "she told Business Insider earlier.
Their latest research, published in May, showed that warm weather only slows the spread of a virus if a large section of the population becomes immune or resistant to infection.
However, it is possible that after about two to three years, the coronavirus "will fit into this classic seasonal pattern, peaking in the winter months," Baker said - after a vaccine has been developed and distributed.
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